At times, the world we live in can feel ultra-overwhelming and might even cause us to shut down (and feel rundown). This is what it feels like to be a highly sensitive person, or someone with a sensory processing sensitivity. “A highly sensitive person is someone who experiences the world with greater awareness — emotionally, auditorily, visually, tactilely, and even through taste and smell — of what is happening in the world around them,” says Elizabeth DuBois, PhD, a sociologist and professional development coach.
The term was first coined in 1996 by clinical research psychologist Elaine Aron in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, and created a new topic of interest for many mental health experts. “From the point of publication on, psychologists, doctors, sociologists, and social psychologists have researched and practiced to extend our understanding of how sensory information is processed in the brain and how that impacts individuals, their families, and the world,” says Dr. DuBois.
Meet the Experts
Dr. Elizabeth DuBois is a sociologist and professional development coach with a PhD in Conflict Resolution.
To better understand what it means to be a highly sensitive person, Dr. DuBois says to think of it this way: “A person who has more average sensitivities experiences the world as if they are drinking through a garden hose. There’s manageability to the way things come at them, and how they can take things in,” she explains. For the Highly Sensitive Person, that garden hose is a lot more like a firehose. “For folks who are especially sensitive, it can seem like they are drowning amongst the sights, sounds, smells, and emotions of others surrounding them,” says Dr. DuBois.
How to Tell If You’re a Highly Sensitive Person
With the level of sensory we are exposed to in today’s world, many of us might feel highly sensitive. And, being highly sensitive is fairly common, as Dr. DuBois says up to 20% of people have sensory processing sensitivities. The way to tell if you’re a highly sensitive person is “if you are easily overwhelmed or even shut down in noisy settings, in fast-paced environments, when facing tons of competing deadlines, are unable to shake violent or intense movies, can’t help but pick up on other people’s intense emotion, and, in general, feel exhausted when dealing with situations that have a ton of visual, auditory, and logistical elements going on,” says Dr. DuBois. Additionally, you can take a quick and easy self-test, here.
Highly sensitive people are not abnormal and don’t “have any special disabilities that make functionality and thriving in any particular field or endeavor impossible,” Dr. DuBois explains. In fact, being a highly sensitive person can be somewhat of a superpower as you’re more aware of the richness of the world and have a heightened level of empathy for others, too.
If you identify as a highly sensitive person, Dr. DuBois says it likely means that you are more overwhelmed than the average when it comes to daily stress. “The things that you are taking in are impacting your central nervous system with greater ‘oomph’ because your central system is processing stimuli more deeply than most folks,” she explains. “Despite the marvels of modern living, our brains and nervous systems were designed to deal with hunting and gathering and fending off wild animals — these traits don’t translate easily to things like your Facebook getting hacked, construction noise right outside your cubicle, an AC put on blast at a restaurant, or your boss sending vague ‘let’s chat this afternoon’ emails,” she adds. For those who don’t identify as highly sensitive, they might find these stressors annoying, frustrating, and slightly anxiety-inducing. But, for the highly sensitive folks, “these things can feel exhausting or overwhelming to the point of emotional shutdown,” says Dr. DuBois.
Self-Care for Highly Sensitive People
As a highly sensitive person, self-care is ultra-important — and it starts with protecting your energy. “This sounds vague but, as a highly sensitive person, you are a cute little sponge soaking up the world around you, including the emotions of the people you welcome into your life,” says Dr. DuBois. One excellent way for you to protect your energy is by setting strong boundaries.
It also helps to ensure the environment you spend time in is calming and relaxing. “Setting up your home or office with things you find beautiful, such as calming art, candles that make you feel relaxed, and soft music, can have a massive impact on how relaxed you feel, and feeling settled and grounded is what managing a sensory processing sensitivity is all about,” says Dr. DuBois. “Your nervous system is wired to be on high alert more easily than most people, so give yourself a calm, quiet habitat to live and work in,” she adds. Setting boundaries with social media, emails, and devices in general can also help as each little ping can feel overwhelming. By setting boundaries, your environment instantly becomes more relaxed.
Since highly sensitive people essentially have a more heightened nervous system, self-care practices for calming the nervous system can be of benefit. Meditation, going for a walk in nature, listening to classical music, exploring creative interests, and soaking in a luxurious bubble bath can also be effective self-care practices for highly sensitive people.
And, remember, while things might feel overwhelming, being highly sensitive is a bonus and something to be celebrated. Highly sensitive people approach the world with an abundance of empathy, which can be a great tool for those who are parents, managers, care-givers, politicians, leaders, and more. It can also help foster strong and emotionally authentic relationships, as well as create a deep richness for life and all of the beauty this world has to offer, too.
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